Scientists still enjoy a fairly high reputation in society as a whole (notwithstanding creationists and climate deniers). It is worth pausing to ask why scientists are still given credibility in this increasingly doubting age.
I’m pretty sure most people would say we deserve to be trusted because of the scientific method. You all know the 4 step version of the scientific method taught to every grade school child. But as I’ve pointed out while there is some combination of hypothesis, prediction and empirical test in good science, where those hypotheses come from is pretty unclear (its not true science proceeds by making up any guess you want). And things rarely follow a nice sequential order. There are usually a lot of backwards steps, circling around, and etc (nice post by Terry on this).
So if it isn’t the scientific method what is it? Predictions are certainly important. But there is plenty of science, especially in the early days of a field where a lot more observation than prediction is happening. And Baconian Empiricism (reality trumps pretty ideas) is certainly part of it, but plenty of theoreticians don’t go there.
Instead, I would argue that the one thing ALL scientists (and here I mean all types of scientists not just academics or people advancing the very edges of the field) have in common is we count. We measure. We put numbers on things. This is not exactly a new idea in science. For example:
BOSWELL. ‘Sir Alexander Dick tells me, that he remembers having a thousand people in a year to dine at his house: that is, reckoning each person as one, each time that he dined there.’
JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, is about three a day.’
BOSWELL. ‘How your statement lessens the idea.’
JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, is the good of counting. It brings every thing to a certainty, which before floated in the mind indefinitely.’
—-Life of Johnson; Apr. 18, 1783
LORD KELVIN: “In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”
— [PLA, vol. 1, “Electrical Units of Measurement”, 1883-05-03]
Or in ecology (and a bit more controversially):
ROBERT PETERS: “In the absence of a clear operational definition, different users of the term may develop independent, even inconsistent, definitions. In this way, the original conception grows by accretion of ‘conflation’ of meanings, until any single meaning of the concept appears restrictive and inappropriate. By that stage, the term represents a ‘non-concept’…”
— Robert Peters A Critique for Ecology 1991
It is probably worth noting that one can count and just be descriptive. And there are plenty of people critiquing descriptive science as stamp collecting. I don’t hold much truck with that though. Description (also known as natural history) is a necessary piece of science and some people only do description and are perfectly good scientists. Raunkiaer changed the field of botany and he didn’t do much beside count and describe. We certainly need some theoreticians and hypothesis makers too, but I don’t agree everybody has to do that. Moreover I am quite certain that a wildlife biologist measuring deer abundance or a botanist counting the number of endangered species on a plot of land are scientists. In academia we may call them technicians instead of professors, but I’m not trying to define what it means to be an academic. I’m trying to define what it means to be a scientist.
My bottom line – if you ask me what it means to be a scientists it means the following things going from most important at the top to least important at the bottom:
- Counting and measuring
- Social processes (peer skepticism)
- Scientific method in the traditional sense.
Some of you might argue that by the time you have counting and measuring plus predicting plus peer skepticism you have a good part of the scientific method, and I would say you’re right. But you’ve also lost a lot of mumbo jumbo that we don’t follow very often anyway.
I would also like to argue that by placing counting at the top of the priority list, one has hopefully sharpened our approach in the way Lord Kelvin suggests (“when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science”). In short if you CANNOT measure and count it, you should be a lot more worried about that than whether you have a hypothesis or not (Rob Peters did have a point even if he overstated it).
So what do you think. Can you be a scientist without measuring and counting? Can you measure and count without being a scientist?